Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Flowers?

After a trip to two cemeteries this Memorial Day weekend, I started thinking. Each cemetery was fastidiously prepped for its annual cascade of flowers. Greens were intense. Edges were sharp. Walks were swept clean. The stage was set. Bring on the blooms.

But why flowers? Why do we make this annual tribute to the memory of our loved ones with flowers? Why stake out the cemeteries with baskets, vases, shapes, and sprays of roses, carnations, lilies, daisies, delphiniums, iris, lilacs, and peonies?

Blooms are, in fact, a part of most of life's important rites of passage: births, confirmations, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, illnesses, awards, and deaths. Why, I wondered, are these fragile creations are such integral parts of our stay on this planet?

I read lots of pieces about the topic, learning that flowers were deemed to be important to human health in the first century AD. A few centuries later, flowers of certain colors were thought to be effective in healing specific ailments, with red blooms helping blood-related maladies and blue blossoms helping to calm patients. Even now blue blossoms are thought to aid in the resolution of stress and addiction issues.

Much research has shown the benefits of having flowers in healing situations, such as hospitals and sick rooms at home. Some research has shown that flowers can assist in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Workplace studies have shown that the addition of flowers and plants can reduce stress and increase productivity.

And some research I read found positive impacts of floral arrangements in helping a society deal with trauma. Evidence came from Japan, after World War II, and the United States, after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This doesn't surprise me. Images of the massive flower banks following the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana attest to the value of floral expression of a group's grief.

Flowers at funerals are common in most religions, I learned, with the exception of orthodox Jewish ceremonies and those of some Islamic sects. One explanation I read of blooms' absence in Jewish funerals is the requirement that burial comes immediately after death. Since the body would not linger and decay, there was little need for strongly scented flowers to mask unpleasant odors. So a logical reason for massed flowers at funerals was initially for the comfort of the living, so that the smell of decay would not mar the ceremony.

Research conducted by the funereal floral industry has strong data (surprise) supporting the positive impacts of flowers on survivors. Flowers provide a reminder of the transitory nature of life, of the beauty of the departed's character, and of the promise of the bliss of the hereafter. Plants are deemed to be especially valued as long-term reminders of the loved one and as markers' of the solace and support offered to the grieving family.

So the vase of deep purple iris and the cheery basket of tulips and daisies that I placed on my father's gravestone and memory marker comfort me. They remind me of his dedication to his family, of his desire to create fun experiences for us over and over and over, of his devotion to his lovely wife Mary.

And the stunning arrangement I lay gently on my husband's marker at the veterans' cemetery strikes deep. The spread of white mums and carnations is reminiscent of his incredibly sweet innocence. His mother once told me that he didn't believe that people would ever lie and I found evidence of his deep trust in other humans. He was shocked and hurt when people he trusted were deceptive. The stunning dark blue larkspur sprays in this arrangement epitomize for me his reverence for the natural world, his dedication, both at home and work, to preserving the resources of this planet. Center stage of this arrangement are star gazer lilies, their deep pink petals in shocking contrast to their white surround. These are my favorite lilies, as they are fun, vibrant, and strong. Their aroma is a spicey clove blend. Like my late husband, these lilies turn heads, make gazes linger. They testify to his humor, his brilliance, his good looks. He was an incredible astronomer, a stunning star gazer, he was.

Joined together with millions of others this holiday weekend, I offer up the delicate, transitory glimpse of floral beauty. I am so grateful for the chance to mark joyful memory with delicate bloom, so glad I can grieve serenely with flowers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sacrifice of Buntings

Last spring lazuli buntings visited my yard and they were spectacular. Their intense blue feathers, set off by a bib of rich bronze, transformed them into flying jewels. A year ago, I wrote about them:

"In the past few days I have been blessed to watch brilliant lazuli buntings peck good seed from my feeders and drink clean water from my bird baths. I am sorry if you have never seen a lazuli bunting up close. They are stunning: tropical turquoise, coral, and white dress these sweet finches. Their flash of blue through the garden is absolutely hypnotic. I've stationed myself at windows, perched myself on a futon in the sunroom, peered from behind living room drapes, just so I could gaze at these gorgeous birds."

This year is different. This year I'm enduring birder envy, as a dear friend a couple miles away is posting pictures of the eleven lazuli buntings visiting her yard and I am seeing none in mine. I find myself sitting in the sunroom while knitting, glancing up between stitches to see if any are at the small feeder or splashing in the birdbath. None. I move to the kitchen and spy to see if any are perched at the large feeder. None. The giddy antics of American goldfinches are delightful to watch, as they fly a roller coaster track through the yard and hang their beautiful yellow selves upside down on the thistle feeder. Beautiful. But they are not lazuli buntings.

My lucky friend who's hosting eleven buntings gave me a valuable tip: she said that a collection of buntings has been labeled a decoration, a mural, and a sacrifice. How wonderful and mysterious to have such vivid collective nouns for these gorgeous birds! Who makes these terms up? Who decides which labels will stick?

I did some study and found verbal delights. Some collective bird nouns are very apt. For example, a group of starlings is called a chattering or a murmuration; a group of geese in flight is called a wedge and that same group on water is called a gaggle. Jays gathered together are called a party and chickens, a peep. A group of turtle doves is called a pitying. These terms make sense.

Some collective bird nouns are lyrical and lovely. Have you ever seen a bouquet (of pheasants) or a charm (of hummingbirds) or a wisp (of snipes) or an exaltation (of larks)? But others are less favorable. When ravens gather, they are called an unkindness or a congress. I wouldn't want to be tagged with either label. Gathered crows are called a murder, while a group of herons is named a siege. Peacocks together are aptly called an ostentation.

Other terms I looked at didn't seem to have clear reasoning related to human views of the birds. Would you name a group of raptors a cauldron? Would you call gathering of parrots a company? Would you think that kettle is a fine label for a bunch of nighthawks? How about the word knob? Would you apply that to a group of widgeons? Not sure I understand...

I'm enchanted by these collective nouns, these group names given to birds by curious and imaginative folks over hundreds of years. And I am ever so grateful for the lazuli bunting, whose presence in my birder friend's yard spurred her to share bird words, which started this linguistic quest. I think I'll step outside now and scan the yard for a sacrifice of buntings.